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How “Unbroken” Hero Lou Zamperini Saw the Light

Posted on 29 December 2014, 9:05

Every now and then, while channel surfing, I’ll come upon some evangelical preacher seemingly captivating his audience, so much so that when he asks audience members to come up on the stage and profess their faith, many of them parade to the stage as if mesmerized, fall backward into someone’s arms, claim that they are healed of some long-standing affliction, and shed tears while praising God.  Such scenes perplex me and I wonder if it is all an act or if I am simply too ignorant to appreciate what is going on.

The Billy Graham crusades I occasionally watched were not quite as dramatic as most of the evangelical events, but I still wondered what he said in his sermons that motivated all those people to leave their seats and march up to the front as if they had suddenly come out of a life-long stupor and now saw the light.  I just didn’t get it.  I still don’t.

Apparently, Lou Zamperini, (below) the real-life hero of the just-released movie “Unbroken,” felt the same way when his wife asked him to attend a Billy Graham crusade one night in 1949.  “I knew I was a sinner and was living a rotten, drunken life, but I didn’t need someone to stand in front of me and tell me, so I fought it,” Zamperini told me when I interviewed him at his Hollywood, California office in 2001.  “I told Cynthia I would go, but that as soon as he said ‘every eye closed and every head bowed,’ I’m out of there.”


But something happened that night that turned Zamperini into a different person. “I experienced a 180-degree turnaround and ever since then my life has been successful,” he continued his story with a sincere nod.  I pressed Zamperini for an explanation as to what prompted the “turnaround,” but he just smiled and said something to the effect that it is something you have to experience yourself to understand.

Zamperini was the first person I had ever talked with about such an evangelical conversion and it made me rethink them.  He was a sincere, intelligent man who had held on to his faith for some 52 years and had no reason to fabricate such a story.  He was my “white crow,” the one who proved that all such evangelical converts are not victims of temporary brain washing.

Zamperini, who transitioned from this life last July 2, at age 97, was a mere 85 when I interviewed him.  I had read his story in his 1956 autobiography, Devil at My Heels, long before the current best-selling book about him was released a few years ago, and was anxious to hear his story first hand.  It was a story in which the limits of human endurance went far beyond what most of us living in an Epicurean world can even begin to imagine. As I wrote in the April 2002 issue of Running Times magazine, for Zamperini,  endurance meant surviving in the rigid domain of despair, beyond the reach of help, or rest, or pity.  It meant living from day to day with the heart tearing itself between hope and fear, merely subsisting under a cloud of doom with no finish line in sight.  It meant starving and thirsting while confined to a life raft in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days. It meant fighting off sharks while the enemy shot at him from above.  It meant being tossed around by waves that towered over him during an all-night storm on the 46th day.  Then, with the maddened fury calmed, and after being taken prisoner by the Japanese on a small island, endurance meant living with the tyranny, torture, and torment of his captors, including the threat of decapitation, while confined to a box-like cell measuring six by three feet, and being fed only fish heads and rice scraps. And then there were two cold winters with a minimum of food in a POW camp in Japan, his weight dropping to around 76 pounds. 

I was interviewing Zamperini for a running magazine because he had been a standout middle-distance runner during his high school and college years, making the 1936 Olympic team at age 19, between high school and college.  In fact, he shook hands with the Devil himself at those Berlin Olympics when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had him escorted to his box.  “Ah! The boy with the fast finish,” Zamperini recalled Hitler’s reaction as he was introduced to him. 

After telling me that story, Zamperini opened a drawer on his desk and pulled out the German flag with the Nazi swastika that he took from in front of Hitler’s office at the Reich chancellery.  After seeing Hitler and his entourage pull up in a vehicle and go into the chancellery, he and a friend decided they wanted the flag as a souvenir.  “After they went in, there were just the guards there,” he recalled with some amusement.  “I timed them marching back and forth and planned it so I could get across the street and grab the flag before they saw me.”  But he couldn’t quite jump high enough to reach the flag and was caught by the guards after a shot was fired in the air.  There was some discussion before Hitler came out and told the guards to give him the flag and let him go.

But Zamperini’s real story began with the war and his service as an Army Air Corps navigator.  When his B-24 developed engine trouble during a search mission and crashed at sea, his 47-day endurance test on the life raft began.  He and two other survivors of the crash subsisted on a few raw fish, a half-dozen uncooked birds, a couple of shark’s livers and rain water.  “We ate everything, eyeballs included, and it tasted like a hot fudge sundae with nuts on top.  It was delicious,” he said of tearing into and eating the birds like a wild man.  He told of catching two sharks by the tail and swinging them into the raft, as one of the other two survivors of the crash put a signal flare down their mouths while Zamperini cut them open with a broken signal mirror.

After undergoing such adversity, many a man would say that there can’t be a God because a fair and just Creator would not permit such suffering.  In fact, Zamperini leaned in that direction until that Billy Graham crusade.  Although he had not been religious, he had called for God’s help many times during his two-and-a-half year survival struggle.  “Lord, save me through the war and I’ll seek you and serve you,” was, he said, his frequent petition, one that he would quickly forget after the war.  While his wounds slowly healed and his physical strength returned, there were bad scars and his hatred for the Japanese soldiers and guards who had brutalized him festered, at least until his conversion at the Billy Graham crusade. 

It was at that crusade that Zamperini began to understand what was happening.  His physical shell had been freed, but his soul had remained imprisoned.  The craving for revenge had shackled him even more than his captors had.  In 1950, he returned to Japan and confronted many of the guards who had beaten him, most of them now prisoners themselves, having been convicted of war crimes.  But rather than lash out at them, Zamperini befriended them.  The former prisoner was finally free.  He devoted much of the rest of his life to operating a boys’ camp designed to teach physical, mental, moral, and spiritual fitness to young people. 

And so whenever I channel surf now and encounter one of those evangelicals seemingly spewing nonsense, I stop to think about how one person’s venom might be another person’s elixir, how people are at different stages of spiritual development and with different needs.  If a person finds peace of mind while living a life of love and service to others, that is, I believe, what is most important.  Unfortunately, the chaos, madness, and turmoil in our materialistic and hedonistic world today suggest that few people have such peace of mind and motivation.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

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Next blog:  January 12  



The energy (that can be seen as light) that can be transferred from the spirit world to effect humans is very real, either directly from them or transmitted via a human being.
Magnetism, spiritual healing, “passes”, the “laying on of hands” may be felt more by those with strong belief, those naturally sensitive and/or when the spirits want it to absolutely be felt for a specific purpose.
The act of transmission is done on a regular basis at Spiritualist churches and Spiritist centers, as well as certain Christian denominations as you already know.
As a Spiritist medium, I can feel the energy when I receive it from others and sometimes when I am used by the spirits to transmit this energy. At times, I have seen it.
Some people even transmit it and receive it without realizing it.
It is a wonderful natural phenomena.

Yvonne Limoges, Fri 2 Jan, 20:20

Greetings, Mike,
Thanks for another thought-provoking posting!
I think not only intention, but also language and cultural conditioning affect such conversions. I’ve learned that there are as many different ways that spiritual healings happen as there are people. I’ve been graced to hear about a lot of them. People describe their experiences and their interpretations of those experiences in all different ways, too, usually influenced by their religious conditioning or lack thereof.
My Catholic friend who got sent your book and read parts to her suicidal friend describes her healing in Catholic terms.
A person wouldn’t describe himself as being a sinner, and his following experience as “being saved,” if he didn’t relate to those terms. He also likely had been wanting to be saved, whereas today I know people who long to become enlightened, and they have realizations of “waking up” rather than of being saved.
Always with thanks to you,
Jane Katra

Jane Katra, Wed 31 Dec, 00:40

Paul…you are so right…it is the intent that matters with everything. I use this word ‘intention’ all the time in my talks.

tricia, Tue 30 Dec, 11:28

A moving film indeed. Classically, that existential reality you find so confounding is known as conversion experiences. Fundamentalists refer to it as being saved.

William James wrote a brilliant chapter on that phenomenon in his classic text “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

David P. Stang, Tue 30 Dec, 01:07

Great article, Mike, and yes, we have to appreciate that we are not all at the same point of unfoldment, but the principles remain the same: it is intent of the heart and mind that are important, no matter what the content of belief.

I believe that someone from Higher Levels will come down and bring hope and love and
upliftment to those who need it, in whatever form is needed, and when the heart truly speaks out, the Spirit responds as appropriate, as weird
as that might be!

Paul D. Biscop, Tue 30 Dec, 01:04

Revealing article.  It proves that not everyone dances to the same drummer.  This is why we all need to be more tolerant of someone else’s beliefs.

Paul Hauser, Mon 29 Dec, 17:51

I agree with most of your comments. The mass hysteria examples are usually just that, as far as I can see…they are caught up in the frenzy of the occasion. The worst ones are the God squads who have been heard to say…the more money that you give…the better your healing!  Yuk. Regarding your main example, I believe that there is a lot of psychology going on here. He knew deep down that he was not behaving properly and wanted to change for the better. If the belief in that helped him then…fine. There may be these occasions when they have seen ‘the light. ‘and a change takes place.

Tricia, Mon 29 Dec, 11:49

You are so on target my friend.  In my world I believe it’s not my job to interfere with anyone’s path unless asked to do so or if in a clinical capacity. Even then it’s a judgement call. Though I do work with those who have been abused with religion, if one’s personal belief system is not hurting anyone else, who am I to try to change this? That religious belief may be a spring board for future spiritual evolution, could be keeping someone from self destructing or enabling one to survive loss. What I will also add is that if one’s spiritual or religious beliefs hurt me, my family, friends or another I will be the first in line to step up to the plate. As 9/11 occurred, my oldest son was in a high-school class. His very liberal teacher announced, “If it weren’t for the Jews this never would have happened.” The teacher’s belief system may have been his elixir, but this greatly upset my son and his friends. In response we had a rabbi go speak to the teacher about piling blame on a cultural group, which included my son and several other young 16 year old minds, who were in this class. There have been other occasions when I have been publicly humiliated by extreme religious groups for being Jewish. As a medium I’ve been told on several occasions I’m going to hell. But, I’m not so easily upset by this anymore. By the way, in one of my books I talked about a deathbed vision Billy Graham’s grandmother had about his grandfather. The grandfather lost part of his leg during war. When the grandmother saw him, after he had passed, he had both legs! No deformity. Good article Mike.

Carla Wills Brandon, Mon 29 Dec, 11:27

Another wonderful post Mike.

Wendy Zammit, Mon 29 Dec, 10:12

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The Only Planet of Choice: Visitations – Many people use the word ‘Alien’ to describe a visitor from outer space. Extra terrestrial is another word, which is rather more user friendly. For the sake of the question and answer format, the word used by the questioner has been left, though even Tom questions our use of‘Alien’. Should we wish to foster openess between all beings of the Universe perhaps we should also look at our vocabulary? In a discussion between Andrew and Tom many years earlier, Andrew had asked Tom about UFOs and whether they were created manifestations. Tom had replied: “Many of the flying things that you call UFOs come from our place, but they come from other places also, and they do come in physical form. But many of them are not physical. They are like your movie screen”. Read here
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